A 2005 study published in the medical journal ‘Circulation’ indicates that the risk of developing stroke and heart attacks can be increased by poor dental health, and recommends that we take more care of our teeth, gums and oral health. The research showed that there is a proven link between gum disease and subsequent narrowing of the arteries, known as atherosclerosis. This is a condition for which there is no cure, and is a root cause of cardiovascular disease.
What is gum disease?
Gum disease is caused by plaque. After eating food our teeth become coated with a layer of plaque which is made up of particles of food, bacteria, and the waste by-products of the bacteria. If plaque is left on the teeth, it can cause the gums to become irritated. This irritation causes bleeding, which many of us have noticed after brushing our teeth at some time in our lives. This is the initial stage of gum disease, and is known as gingivitis. When gum disease is left untreated, the gums tend to become swollen, and more plaque accumulates around the teeth, which cannot then be removed by normal brushing with a toothbrush. Eventually this plaque hardens and forms tartar. As the tartar builds up, it can become infected, and cause periodontitis. This can cause an infection of the jaw bone, and ultimately lead to the loss of one or more teeth.
What are the symptoms of gum disease?
Normal healthy gums are pink coloured. Diseased gums usually appear swollen and red. However, occasionally the only sign of gum disease is when the gums bleed following brushing of the teeth.
Why can gum disease cause heart disease?
The following factors may contribute either separately, or in combination to the risk of heart disease in an individual with gum disease :-
The bacteria that cause gum disease may increase the rate at which arteries become blocked
Bacteria from infected gums can enter the bloodstream, and activating the immune system (the body’s defence mechanism) and making their artery walls inflamed and narrowed
Oral bacteria can enter the bloodstream and attach to the existing fatty deposits within the arteries, causing further narrowing
A protein, called C-reactive protein, is found in higher levels when there is inflammation of the blood vessels and is an indicator that atherosclerosis may develop in the future
The study involved 657 people who had shown no previous history of cardiovascular disease. In order to prove whether gum disease is responsible for an increased risk of developing atherosclerosis, the study team tested all the volunteers for 11 different types of bacteria that cause gum disease. Then they examined the arterial and other heart health factors, and discovered that the people who had the ‘gum disease causing bacteria’ also showed signs of thickening of the artery walls, which is a symptom of atherosclerosis. They also had raised white blood cell counts, which is another risk factor for atherosclerosis. The researchers also discovered that this was not the case for people who have all the other types of oral bacteria.
The narrowing of the arteries that supply blood to the heart or brain, causes oxygen and nutrient deficiency, which affects the normal working of the artery and can cause a blockage causing a heart attackor stroke.
Conclusions from the Oral Health Study
The researchers suggested that the results of the study indicate that people who have gum disease may be at a greater risk of developing atherosclerosis and heart disease.
How to prevent gum disease
The most effective way of preventing gum disease is to maintain good oral hygiene. You should brush your teeth twice a day with a fluoride toothpaste, and use a good quality toothbrush which can reach all areas of the mouth. Also you should visit your dentist regularly. This is because even thorough brushing and flossing cannot remove every trace of plaque, so your dentist needs to check your teeth regularly and remove any build up of tartar.
Treatment for Gum Disease
The main treatment for gum disease involves removing plaque and preventing it’s recurrence. Regular brushing and flossing may cure mild cases of gum disease. However when a layer of tartar has formed, this can only be removed with a special descaling tool, which requires a visit to a dentist or hygienist. Also polishing your teeth’s surfaces makes it harder for bacteria and plaque to reform. Your dentist may also recommend an antiseptic mouthwash to control plaque levels. In more serious cases , where the infection has developed into periodontitis, it may be necessary for the dentist to remove the infected tissue around the root of the tooth (also known as root planing).